In this article, guest author Aleah Fitzwater will walk you through the ins and outs of how to play, and purchase the hammer (or ‘hammered’) dulcimer.

A Beginner's Guide to the Hammer Dulcimer

A Brief History

The hammer dulcimer is a very old instrument. It only misses the mark of being called ancient by a couple hundred years. According to, the hammer dulcimer first originated in Persia around 900 A.D. The predecessor to the hammer dulcimer is a string instrument called the psaltry. The psaltry is also a trapezoid-shaped zither instrument. The main difference between these two instruments is how they are played. The psaltry is plucked, and the hammer dulcimer is struck.


Long after the development of the psaltry and the hammer dulcimer, the cimbalom came along. The cimbalom is a struck, trapezoid-shaped chordaphone that sits on top of four legs. Because of the legs, it looks more like a piano than the other two instruments do. The cimbalom didn’t come around until the late 1800’s in Hungary. That being said, some musicians still refer to other dulcimer-type instruments as cimbaloms. This unique instrument is still played today, and can be found in Eastern Eeuropean countries such as Ukraine, Romania, and Slovakia. It sounds similar to the hammer dulcimer, but typically is played in more of the Romani style. You can hear a great example here!

Basics of Playing the Hammer Dulcimer

  • The player has a hammer in each hand, which they use to strike the strings.
  • There are two sets of wound strings. One set of bass strings, and another set of treble strings.
  • As a general rule, one hand typically takes care of the bass notes, while the other takes care of the treble notes. This is surprisingly similar to how the piano is typically played.

Dulcimer Tunings

Like the tunings of other string instruments, alternate tunings on the hammer dulcimer can get pretty interesting. The most common tuning is simply an ascending major scale where the treble strings start on Do. Musicians who are planning on playing Celtic, bluegrass, or other old-timey pieces will do best by tuning their instruments in this ascending scale pattern. One interesting thing to notice about the instrument is that the notes across the treble bridge will all be 5ths no matter how you tune it!

Another one of the hammer dulcimer tunings which I found in an old book that came with my dulcimer is the Pythagorean tuning. This is a type of just intonation where all the musical ratios are based on 3:2.  This tuning was developed in ancient Greece by the mathematician and musician, Pythagoras. This slight variation in pitch or ‘just intonation’ leads to a more pleasant, consonant sound than equal temperament.

Purchasing a Hammer Dulcimer

New hammer dulcimers can cost anywhere from about £300-£5,000. Talk about a wide price range!  That being said, you can also purchase vintage second-hand ones at a much lower price. For example, I bought a handmade hammer dulcimer this past spring for just $20. But unless you find yourself at an estate sale of a certified woodworker or instrument maker, you might be better off buying a new one. If you do choose the vintage route, be sure to do your research. Carefully inspect the soundboard to make sure it is fully intact and has no cracks.


The hammer dulcimer comes in many sizes. You can tell the size by the number next to the name of the instrument (or by counting how many treble and bass strings there are).  The first number you see is how many treble strings there are, and the second number is the bass. There will always be more treble strings than bass strings. Here are the most common sizes:

  • 12/11
  • 15/14
  • 16/15

As a general rule, the bigger the dulcimer, the more expensive it will be.

Accessories You’ll Need

  • Tuning Wrench
  • Hammers
  • Strings

Tuning Wrenches are easy enough to find on Amazon for about 10 bucks.Wrenches are used to adjust the nuts at the ends of the strings in order to tune them. Note that if the strings on your dulcimer are older or if the instrument has been detuned for a while, it will take several tunings until the instrument ‘remembers’ where it’s supposed to be.

When it comes to hammers, those are a bit more complicated. Hammers come in several materials, such as wood, metal, and plastic. Many hammers have different distinctions too, such as different wood types (maple, cherry, beech…) as well as different designs. Hammers can be coated in leather for a softer, more gentle sound. They can also be double-sided, offering a different tone depending on the side you’re playing with.

If your dulcimer is new, you won’t have to worry about stringing it, at least for a while. But everyone will need to restring their instrument eventually. There are many great hammer dulcimer sites that sell custom sets of strings to fit your instrument. Some people also use harp strings when they can’t find a big enough set designed for dulcimers.

The Dulcimer in Traditional Music

Traditional hammer dulcimer music includes Appalachian folk tunes and hymns, as well as Celtic and even Medieval tunes. There aren’t as many recordings of traditional dulcimer tunes on YouTube as you might initially think, but here are a handful of great examples.

Lancaster is a folk song and hymn from the Appalachian mountain region:

In this video, Dick Glasglow performs a traditional Irish jig on his hammer dulcimer:


This original jig was written by dulcimer player Dizzi, and is fittingly called Dizzi Jig. While it was written in modern times, this tune is very much in the style of what you would have heard back in the day:


Cool Hammer Dulcimer Covers

Hammer dulcimers have made their way into pop culture. Here are a few renditions that I think you’ll enjoy.

The Rains of Castamere is a song from the show Game of Thrones:

Coldplay’s Clocks is simply ethereal on the hammer dulcimer:

The running eight notes in this version of Scarborough Fair are nothing short of impressive and lush:

This cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World is also pretty rockin’:

If you ever find yourself with a hammer dulcimer, use these tips to help get yourself started. The instrument isn’t as complicated as it may seem!

So, which hammer dulcimer cover did you like the best? Let us know in the comments!

See also…

» Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low
» Rock Music and the Flute: A Brief History
» The Mouth Harp: The Sound, Origin & Playing Technique
» The Bass: The History, Technique & Tips
» The History of the Drum Kit

Guest Blogger Aleah Fitzwater

Aleah Fitzwater is a classically trained flutist, writer, and rock enthusiast. You can read more of her writings at Scanscore.

You can also listen to her flute music at Spotify.

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